A critical and liberal look at law and policy

RSS

Dyfed Powys Police fail to justify the council meeting arrest and detention

There is still no good explanation for the arrest and detention of Jacqui Thompson.

A week ago today Dyfed Powys Police responded very quickly to call by Carmarthenshire Council to attend an "incident" at the Council Chamber.

The "incident" was, in fact, the local campaigner and blogger Jacqui Thompson quietly filming the council's casual dismissal of a petition. There is no evidence that she was disruptive or interrupting proceedings. It was just that the councillors did not want to be filmed while transacting public business.

The police acted promptly when called by the council. The council have stated that they did not ask for her arrest, only her removal. The police decided to arrest Ms Thompson anyway. They also decided not to just eject her form the council's building but to take her to a police station where she was kept in a cell for two hours.

One would expect that the police, having made the decisions so swiftly to use their coercive powers of arrest and detention, would be able to explain their decision-making. After all, arresting and detaining someone at a public council meeting are significant decisions to make in any liberal democracy.

However, one would be wrong in this expectation: for over a week later Dyfed Powys Police still seems unable to properly explain what they did and on what legal basis they did it. Such a failure of accountability is at best worrying.

Last Friday, two days after the "incident" I sent Dyfed Powys Police the following questions:

1. In what possible way is filming a public council meeting a breach of the peace?

2. Can the police confirm that filming a public council meeting is not actually an arrestable offence?

3. Why was she taken to a police station? And why was she then kept several hours at a police station?

4. Why was she threatened with court if she did not sign an "undertaking"?

5. What possible offence was the police threatening with charging her?

6. Do the police realise that this is a free expression issue?

7. Will the police now apologise to Ms Thompson?

8. Can you please name the officers that arrested Ms Thompson?

I did not get a response on Friday, or even on Monday. When I called to chase, the press officers were variously away from their desks, in meetings, or simply not in that day. Sometimes the phone just rang out.

Finally, yesterday afternoon - nearly a week after the "incident" - the following extraordinary statement was emailed to me and simultaneously published on their website:

Response to media query - Incident at Carmarthenshire County Council
Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Two Police Constables were involved in the arrest of Ms Thompson on the 8th June 2011 following an incident at a planning meeting in County Hall, Carmarthen.

Due to the nature of the incident the officers requested Ms Thompson to desist from recording the proceedings and to leave the premises. She refused to do this and acted in a manner which led to the officers using common law powers of arrest to prevent any further breach of the peace. (This is not defined as an arrestable offence - but carries a common law power of arrest).

In order to comply with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1986 all detained people are taken to a designated custody suite, where the detention is governed by a Code of Practice under the jurisdiction of a Custody Officer who decides upon grounds for detention.

A key consideration for the Custody Officer concerns the release of the detained person and whether the behaviour will recommence immediately upon release. An alternative to release from custody would be for the case to be heard at a Magistrates Court where a Binding Over Order could be made.

As part of this process officers sought assurance from Ms Thompson that she would not cause a breach of the peace upon her release. She provided a written undertaking to this effect and she was released from police custody just before 2.30 pm that day.

There were no suggested charges following the incident.

Mr Green asks 'Do the police realise that this is a free expression issue?'

The Police would consider the implications of the articles of the Human Rights Act when deciding on which course of action to take.

If Ms Thompson is dissatisfied with her treatment by the Police she can contact our Professional Standards Department, who can advise her of her options.

Let us now take each of these statements in turn.

Two Police Constables were involved in the arrest of Ms Thompson on the 8th June 2011 following an incident at a planning meeting in County Hall, Carmarthen.

According to independent witnesses, there were actually four officers who attended the "incident". It was also not a planning meeting.

Due to the nature of the incident the officers requested Ms Thompson to desist from recording the proceedings and to leave the premises. She refused to do this and acted in a manner which led to the officers using common law powers of arrest to prevent any further breach of the peace. (This is not defined as an arrestable offence - but carries a common law power of arrest).

This is probably intended to be the response to my numbered questions one and two: in what possible way is filming a public council meeting a breach of the peace, and can the police confirm that filming a public council meeting is not actually an arrestable offence.

However, you will see that Dyfed Powys Police does not directly answer these questions. In fact, it would appear that nothing occurred which would constitute an actual or threatened breach of the peace.

In order to comply with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1986...

It is actually the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984.

...all detained people are taken to a designated custody suite, where the detention is governed by a Code of Practice under the jurisdiction of a Custody Officer who decides upon grounds for detention.

However, there appears to be no blanket power to continue detention beyond a time where a recurrence or renewal of the breach is likely. Indeed, as Blackstone's Police Operational Handbook 2011 describes on page 295:

Release may occur at any stage: at the scene, after they have been taken from the scene, or at the police station.

If this is correct, then Dyfed Powys Police appear to have simply got the law and practice wrong.

A key consideration for the Custody Officer concerns the release of the detained person and whether the behaviour will recommence immediately upon release. An alternative to release from custody would be for the case to be heard at a Magistrates Court where a Binding Over Order could be made.

Again, this seems to be wrong. There appears to be no reason for someone arrested for threatened breach of the peace to be taken to a police station and put before a custody officer.

As part of this process officers sought assurance from Ms Thompson that she would not cause a breach of the peace upon her release. She provided a written undertaking to this effect and she was released from police custody just before 2.30 pm that day. There were no suggested charges following the incident.

According to Ms Thompson, she was pressed to sign the undertaking on pain of being detained longer. Ms Thompson has said:

Without a solicitor present, I was then threatened by three police officers who said that if I didn't sign an 'undertaking' not to film/record any more meetings I would be kept in overnight, I am not sure now whether they could even keep me that long.

If Ms Thompson's recollection is correct, then the police officers seem to have misdirected themselves that filming/recording a council meeting by itself was a potential breach of the peace that she could undertake not to repeat.

And then there is this gem:

Mr Green asks 'Do the police realise that this is a free expression issue?'

Who is this curious "Mr Green" who suddenly appears in a formal and general press release, without any explanation or introduction? One can perhaps guess, but its unexplained inclusion does rather suggest the statement was not put together with any sufficient care or thought.

The Police would consider the implications of the articles of the Human Rights Act when deciding on which course of action to take.

No reason has so far been disclosed for us to believe that Dyfed Powys Police had any - or any proper - regard to the articles of the European Convention of Human Rights or the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998 as they arrested, handcuffed, and detained Ms Thompson for seemingly no good reason.

If Ms Thompson is dissatisfied with her treatment by the Police she can contact our Professional Standards Department, who can advise her of her options.

One rather hopes she will do so.

It is clear that Dyfed Powys Police believed (or was told) that filming a council meeting was by itself both a breach of the council's rules (which it was not) and a breach of a peace capable of being repeated. In my opinion, it seems Dyfed Powys Police overreacted to the council's complaint and misused their powers of arrest and detention.

If the conduct of Dyfed Powys Police was unfortunate in the arrest and detention, it is certainly troubling that they are still unable to adequately explain what seems a misconceived and illiberal use of their coercive power.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman